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Alarm as mighty Yenisei is latest Siberian river to run dry

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03 August 2012


Ob Sea, the man-made reservoir south of Novosibirsk, showed a record low level of water this spring

For around one week navigation has been suspended on the Yenisei, preventing vital cargoes of winter supplies reaching remote Arctic destinations. 

It is the third major Siberian river to suffer chronic water shortages in recent months and a state of emergency has been declared already on the Angara, a tributary of the Yenisei.

The low water levels combined with roasting summer temperatures across Siberia are bound to spark concern that climate change is to blame. 

Pictures of the Yenisei in Kransnoyarsk show a totally dry bed on a channel of the river close to one of the city's main bridges. This follows weeks of baking temperatures of 30C or more in the region.

Similarly disturbing images of the 'Ob Sea' in Novosibirsk from May show how it was possible to walk to an island nicknamed 'Taiwan' by locals, which is normally hundreds of metres offshore.

Yenisei, Siberia

Siberia, Angara

Yenisei river bed, pictured by Krasnoyarsk journalist  Andrei Skovorodnikov  and, below, river Angara in the ring of wildfires 

Hazards in the Yenisei are worsened this week by thick smoke from forest fires which has reduced visibility on the river in places to as little as 200 metres.

The levels of water in the river pose a threat to navigation, acknowledged Ivan Gordeyev, deputy chief of the Krasnoyarsk Hydrometeorological Centre. 

With water levels in the giant Krasnoyarsk Reservoir, 30 km upstream from the city, some 5.5 metres below their normal levels, officials say they cannot increase the flow into the river to raise the level for navigation. 

'The water flow will hamper navigation from Krasnoyarsk to Igarka,' he admitted to Itar-Tass.

'The average level of water in the Yenisei is just one meter 25 cm. This has not happened since 1967'.

A 'state of emergency' means captains are permitted to use their own judgement in moving their cargoes on the 5539 km (3442 mile) river, which starts in Mongolia and flows into the Kara Sea.

'This will allow us to continue navigation on the Yenisei River in order to deliver cargoes to the destination points,' said Alexander Ivanov, director-general of Yenisei River Navigation. The stretch of the river giving most concern currently is between  Krasnoyarsk and Dudinka. 

Angara, Siberia

Angara, Siberia

Half loaded barge on Angara river, and, below one of Angara's rapids. Pictures: Yenisei River Steamship Company

It was reported on 27 July that some 30 boats remained trapped for a third day due to poor visibility and smoke. Since then the situation has worsened. 

Currently half of the scheduled cargo deliveries have not been made - and time is running out. 

A state of emergency  was declared on July 24 on a key shallow stretch of the Angara near the Boguchany hydropower plant, permitting captains to continue to sail at their own discretion, delivering vital supplies to the far north of Russia and retrieving timber supplies from forestry companies.

One crucial cargo consists of 200,000 tons of coal for the Polyus gold mining company.

Twice as many vessels  are deployed on the Angara by Yenisei River Shipping this summer because they are carrying only half loads due to the low river level.

'We primarily have to use ships with a shallow draft and load large ships at 40-to-50%', a company spokesman told Interfax.

The crisis will worsen on August 15 when water will be used to raise the level of the Boguchany reservoir from 169 to 185 metres.  This will make downstream river traffic impossible, it is forecast. 

The Yenisei is the largest river system flowing into the Arctic. 

The problems on the Ob River have eased though navigation problems remain, but in June there were warnings of record low levels of water. 

Scientists said the cause was mainly a winter with the least snowfall - excepting one year - since 1924. 

'There is not only the problem of water supplies. There is an ecological aspect as well,' said Yuri Vinokurov, director of the Institute of Water and Ecological Problems of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in June.

'When the water level in the river drops, its composition worsens because of waste discharged. 

'As the Ob's diluting capacity decreases, the water quality worsens dramatically. Another critical problem is to fill water reservoirs, especially the Novosibirsk reservoir.'

The summer has seen problems for cargo vessels reaching Surgut, the oil capital of Khanti-Mansiyskiy region, on the Ob.

Cargo ship owner Anatoly Rogov: 'I'm working at Surgut river fleet since 1977, and this summer it is the first time I see such a low level of water. Where I could have gone through, quietly, I now see islands.'

Other experienced river boats owners refer to the summer 2012 as 'abnormal', saying  such low levels of water were never registered since the beginning of observations more than 100 years ago. 

The summer has seen huge delays in delivering cargoes to oil settlements in the region, said Yuri Dolganov, chief of local navigation. 

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